For years now, waste has been the dirty little secret of the UK's environmental strategy.
Over the past decade the country has emerged as, if not a pioneer, then certainly a leading player in the development of a low carbon economy. The government's energy strategy may have been badly neglected in the past, but the last few years have seen the emergence of a coherent plan for developing low carbon power; our industrial and business strategy is far from perfect, but there is a realisation across all political parties that we need to develop a clean tech industry and provide a framework of legislation and incentives to encourage businesses to curb carbon emissions; and while the transport strategy remains decidedly contradictory, there is at least an understanding that greener alternatives must be sought.
And then there is waste - an area of environmental policy that the government continues to tip-toe around as if it has found itself lost in one of the grotesque landfill sites it has done so little to address.
Today, the Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of MPs pulled on the rubber gloves and attempted to rake over the mess that is the government's waste policy. It does not make pretty reading for Defra.
According to the report, the waste policy for England and Wales is "disproportionately" focused on domestic waste, despite the fact it contributes less than 10 per cent of overall waste; contains hardly any "firm targets" for commercial and industrial waste; has delivered "premature" funding cuts to services designed to help businesses manage their waste; and has singularly failed to establish waste as "valuable resource" that can be re-used, recycled or used to generate energy.
And it gets worse: the government has not done enough to tackle food waste or increased textile waste; its timeline for banning certain recyclable materials from being sent to landfill is "unambitious"; its targets for household recycling need increasing; it has failed to clearly make the case for waste charging schemes; failed to remove planning barriers for waste-to-energy plants; and not done enough to ensure that the agencies tasked with enforcing waste regulations are properly funded.
The government will claim that it is making progress, and it is true that targeting households has resulted in the amount of waste being sent to landfill in England and Wales falling by 23 per cent between 2001 and 2007, while household recycling rates have climbed to 37 per cent. However, the UK still lags far behind its continental neighbours where recycling rates frequently top 70 per cent, while it comes as no surprise that the first environmental services to face the axe as a result of government spending cuts have been in the waste sector.
The committee may offer a damning assessment of the government's waste strategy, but there is hardly anything in the 67-page report that will surprise anyone familiar with the challenges faced by the UK's waste management industry. It is encouraging for the sector to see its concerns aired in public, but those involved in the waste management and recycling industries will also be frustrated that it has taken so long for the these blindingly obvious issues to be addressed.
It is hard to explain rationally why the UK has such a poor record on waste management and recycling. The Dutch and Germans have proven over and over again that there are economic benefits to be realised from treating waste as a resource, while report after report has shown that waste-to-energy and anaerobic digestion systems represent one of the most cost effective forms of renewable energy technology around. Meanwhile, reducing business waste is one of the easiest and most effective ways of trimming corporate costs.
Of course, if you can't explain a phenomenon rationally, it is best to try and explain it irrationally. I am reluctant to revert to national stereotypes, but perhaps the reason for our failure to tackle waste head on lies in a certain reserved prudishness when it comes to the messy subject of rotting food and used nappies.
If this is indeed the case, and it is cultural factors that explain our reluctance to address the UK's waste mountain, then, as the committee concludes, the onus has to be on the government to take action.
The fact that the economics are broadly in favour of treating waste as a resource means it would be remarkably easy for the government to develop a zero landfill policy, curbing greenhouse gas emissions and bolstering a genuinely green industry in the process.
As the committee points out all that is needed are targets for cutting the amount of waste sent to landfill and requirements for large businesses to report on the waste they produce - essentially a replication of the emerging strategy for tackling carbon emissions. If these targets were backed up by sufficient penalties, they would immediately provide the incentive for increased investment in the recycling facilities, anaerobic digestors and waste-to-energy plants that would make it possible to divert waste away from landfill.
There might not be many votes in it, but it is about time the government held its nose and got to grips with the messy reality of its faltering waste policy.
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